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Serial Killers

Can Serial Killers Feel Remorse?

A recent case raises the question of why some killers turn themselves in.

Key points

  • It’s commonly believed that serial killers feel no remorse.
  • Some serial killers have turned themselves in before police located them.
  • In serial killers' self-surrenders, motives have been mixed, but a few did show remorse.
Photo by K. Ramsland
Photo by K. Ramsland

At the end of May, 62-year-old Raul Meza, Jr. called police in Austin, Texas, gave his name, and said, “You are looking for me.” He admitted killing his roommate, Jesse Fraga (whose body police had discovered three days earlier), as well as another person in 2019, Gloria Lofton. Police are now investigating whether Meza might be connected to 8 to 10 other cold cases. He’d been convicted in the 1982 murder of an 8-year-old and served just 11 years in prison. Upon his recent arrest, Meza said he was looking forward to killing again. Yet, he’d made the call that terminated his ability to do so. It’s too soon to say why he called, but he did realize he’d be the chief person of interest in Fraga’s death. Maybe turning himself in was just a way to accelerate the inevitable.

Other serial killers, feeling cornered, have made similar moves. When nurse Charles Cullen was questioned in 2003 over his involvement in the deaths of two patients in New Jersey, he quickly admitted he’d intentionally killed up to 40. Elmer Wayne Henley, Jr., fatally shot sexual predator Dean Corll in Texas in 1973 before calling police to turn himself in. He then showed them three mass graves that held 27 bodies. Henley, an accomplice, admitted to his part. He could have told police only about shooting Corll, which was self-defense. Instead, his behavior showed a desire to mitigate what he’d done with Corll.

It’s commonly believed that serial killers cannot stop because their compulsion is so strong they become "addicted" to murder. Since they feel no remorse, they have no reason to refrain from indulging. In my study of 300 serial killers, 2.3 percent had turned themselves in. Among them were some who wanted to stop.

Robert Spahalski seemed to have remorse inspired by the specter of his own death. In 2005, in Rochester, New York, Spahalski told police he’d committed four murders. Three had happened in 1990 and 1991, while the fourth had occurred recently. He’d known his victims, and one was a friend whom he’d killed unintentionally while on cocaine. He said he’d prayed daily for a past victim and was confessing to clear his conscience. He believed he had a fatal illness and wanted to set his affairs in order.

Also in recent news was the DNA-based identification of a dismembered victim of Wayne Adam Ford, who’d brought a severed breast when he surrendered himself to the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office in November 1998. Ford’s brother, Rodney, had convinced him to turn himself in. It was Ford’s idea to come clean about killing four women. The Los Angeles Times asked, “Is Trucker that Rare Serial Killer with a Conscience?” His brother testified during his trial about Ford’s suffering: “He turned himself in. He expressed to me a number of times he didn’t want to hurt people anymore.”

It’s unclear why Ryan Sharpe called the East Feliciana Parish Sheriff's Office in Louisiana in 2017 to claim he’d fatally shot three men and wounded a fourth. Mental illness seems to have played a role. When police arrived, Sharpe led them on a high-speed car chase before he surrendered. His victims were older white males shot on their own property. When questioned, Sharpe said he’d received five “tags” from the state police and federal government. He’d used two on deer and believed the other three had to be used on humans, so he'd found people to shoot. Sharpe was convicted in one murder, but the conviction was voided. His retrial has been delayed in order to assess his mental competence.

One of the most infamous self-surrenders involved Edmund Kemper, but it wasn’t about remorse. On April 24, 1973, the Santa Cruz police received a call from a young man they knew as “Big Ed.” He claimed to be the "Co-ed Killer" they were looking for. He said he’d just murdered his mother and her best friend. He’d fled to Colorado and wanted someone to pick him up. The officers went to his home and found the dismembered remains. Colorado police arrested Kemper. Once in custody in California, Kemper showed detectives where he’d buried remains and described in detail what he’d done to each of his eight victims. He blamed his mother. Kemper seems to have surrendered simply because he had no means for maintaining a life as a fugitive.

Perhaps the most striking case of remorse is that of the killer who stopped himself with suicide. On March 5, 1970, three girls were abducted from a home in Sylmar, California. Two returned home to report that two men had kidnapped them. Shortly thereafter, Mack Ray Edwards entered the Los Angeles Police Department, handed over a loaded revolver, and said, “I have a guilt complex.” He admitted to the kidnapping, turned in his accomplice, and told police where the third girl, still alive, could be found. Edwards then said he’d been killing children since 1953. He showed officers those graves he could locate. During his trial, he attempted to kill himself twice. He asked for a death sentence, which he got. The appeals process was slow, so on October 30, 1970, Edwards hanged himself.

Self-surrender does not necessarily confirm a sense of remorse, but a small percentage of serial killers seem to have genuinely felt it. That’s enough to dismiss the broad generalization that precludes the possibility.


Jones, A., Stark, S, & Remadna, N. (2023, May 31). Suspect in Pflugerville man’s death arrested.

Ramsland, K. (2020). How to catch a killer: Hunting and capturing the world’s most notorious serial killers. Sterling.

Ramsland, K. (2005). The human predator: A historical chronicle of serial murder and forensic investigation. Berkley.

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